The deaths of two opposing generals underscore the fierce fighting that occurred in the shadow of southern Maryland’s idyllic mountain scenery.
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The battle for Fox’s Gap, part of the larger Battle of South Mountain, was fought on September 14, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill in Frederick and Washington counties, Maryland during the American Civil War. The battle was a Union victory, with Confederate forces abandoning the mountain pass and retreating toward Sharpsburg.
After General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia destroyed the Union Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee saw an opportunity to invade Maryland, threaten Washington, DC, and possibly influence European powers to recognize Confederate independence. Lee divided his army and sent one wing to capture Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and the other into Maryland. A copy of his orders fell into enemy hands, however, and for once Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan acted swiftly to catch Lee off guard.
McClellan sent elements of his reconstituted Army of the Potomac to capture three strategic gaps in South Mountain, hoping to sever Lee’s army and destroy it in detail. The mountain passes were known as Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Crampton’s Gap. Because of the distance between them, the Battle of South Mountain was actually three separate engagements, though they all took place in a single day.
The Union army’s right wing, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and consisting of the I and IX Corps, assailed Turner’s Gap and Fox’s Gap. The Union force consisted of approximately 15,200 men, including two future U.S. presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. Opposing them was Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s division, with a total of 5,000. On the morning of September 14, 1862, Burnside’s right wing attacked.
The IX Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno, assaulted Fox’s Gap. On Reno’s left flank was Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox’s Kanawha Division, which having won its nickname in the mountains of western Virginia, was experienced fighting in difficult terrain. The Confederate defenders gave way, and their commander, Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, Jr., was killed trying to rally his men.
Hill poured reinforcements into the gap, trying to stem the blue tide. Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Drayton’s brigade counterattacked through Wise’s Field, but were pushed back. One regiment, the 50th Georgia, lost 159 men killed or wounded out of 225. Towards evening, as Maj. Gen. Reno urged his troops forward, he was mortally wounded. The battle for Fox’s Gap claimed the lives of two promising generals: one wore gray, the other blue.
Sunset and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements ended the fighting, and despite the death of their general, the Union IX Corps emerged victorious. It sustained 889 casualties, 356 of which were from the Kanawha Division alone. On the Southern side, Drayton’s brigade was nearly destroyed, suffering 433 killed or wounded and 210 captured.
Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.
Fox’s Gap battlefield hasn’t changed much over the past century and a half, save for the addition of several monuments and historical markers. The earliest was a granite monument dedicated to Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno and erected in 1889 by IX Corps veterans. In 1993, the Sons of Confederate Veterans installed a smaller granite marker in honor of Brig. Gen. Samuel L. Garland, Jr., and an interpretive trail leads to a bronze and granite sculpture dedicated to the North Carolina soldiers who fought there. That monument was erected on private property in 2003.
South Mountain State Battlefield is open daily 8:00am to sunset. There is no visitor center, but information on the battle is located at the nearby Washington Monument State Park museum, 6620 Zittlestown Road in Middletown, Maryland. There are monuments and wayside markers at Turner’s Gap (U.S. Route 40 Alt/Old National Pike), Fox’s Gap (Reno Monument Road), and Crampton’s Gap (Gathland State Park at Gapland Road). Call (301) 791-4767 for more information.